Charm offensive coverRating: 4.75 stars
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Length: Novel


Dev Deshpande believes in fairy-tale love and he tries to help the process along as a producer on a long-running dating show, Ever After. Dev knows that a lot of what happens on the show is managed by production, but he also believes it can lead to real, lasting love and it is his dream job being a part of it. Normally, Dev is a handler for a group of “princesses” (i.e., the female contestants vying for the love of the “prince”), but this latest prince needs a lot of extra help. Given Dev is the best producer they have, he is tasked with getting Charlie Winshaw camera ready. Unfortunately, while Charlie is wealthy and gorgeous as sin, he is also anxious, awkward, and completely uncomfortable with the entire process.

Charlie took this gig as the Ever After prince for one reason only: to rehab his reputation and regain his job in the tech industry. Charlie is a genius who founded his company as a young wunderkind, but he was recently kicked out for being perceived as too difficult. Now, no other tech companies want to touch him, and Charlie is hoping going on TV as a hot, eligible bachelor will help reaffirm that he can be calm, polished, and confident. Unfortunately, Charlie is so out of his comfort zone on Ever After that he can’t even begin to project the image he needs. Charlie has OCD, panic attacks, and anxiety, and being in front of a camera with people touching him all the time and having to pretend to want to date any of these women seems impossible.

Fortunately, Dev has a way about him that soothes Charlie and helps make it easier for him to navigate the reality show process. With Dev, Charlie feels like he can be himself, without judgment. Dev seems to accept all the parts of Charlie that everyone else ridicules or finds exhausting, giving Charlie more confidence. The two become close friends, spending all their down time together during filming, and later, traveling the world as the show takes its contestants to various global locations. As their friendship builds, both Dev and Charlie begin to realize there is more between them. Charlie has never really experienced attraction to anyone, so he never thought of himself as anything but straight. He still isn’t sure quite how to label himself, but he knows that he wants Dev. For Dev, his attraction to Charlie was near immediate, but he knows there is no way things can work between them. The men are not allowed to date one another under terms of their contracts. Not to mention that Charlie’s contract requires that he propose to one of the princesses and stay engaged for 6 months following the show. Now Charlie and Dev have fallen hard for one another and all they want is each other, but with the obligations of the show standing in the way, they aren’t sure if there is a way for them to be together.

Challenge Month 2021The set up for this book grabbed me right away and this is Alison Cochrun’s debut book, so it seemed like a great choice for New-to-Me Author Week for our Reading Challenge Month. I will say, I totally loved this story and, while it’s a fairly long book, I tore right through it. I enjoy competitive reality shows and I will reluctantly admit that I have watched a few seasons of The Bachelor, the show on which Ever After is presumably based. And I’m saying “presumably” here, but really, the fictional show almost completely mirrors the format of the long-running Bachelor. Rather than bachelor/bachelorettes handing out roses to contestants they want to keep around, on Ever After they hand out crowns. They have “Group Quests” and “Courting Dates” instead of group and one-on-one dates, culminating in a weekly “Crowing Ceremony” instead of the Bachelor’s “Rose Ceremony.” At times, the commonalities were a little too on the nose for me. These are only a few examples of the many similarities between the shows, and sometimes I think it would have helped to not make Ever After so closely mirror The Bachelor. But ultimately, I think whether or not you have watched the actual show, the behind-the-scenes look at reality programming is done well and a lot of fun. There is definitely a “how the sausage is made” quality to it all, as the magic viewers see on screen is so different from what is really going on with production. So there is a bit of a voyeuristic vibe here as we watch how they put the show together and how things are manipulated.

I think what makes this work really nicely is the juxtaposition between Charlie’s skepticism and the clear producer influence when compared with Dev’s true belief in the process. Yes, he knows so much of what happens is controlled by production, right down to steering who Charlie will choose as his ultimate princess. But Dev truly believes that down there somewhere is the real chance for two people to fall in love and that they are just helping things along. And it is not just that he believes it, but he needs to believe it. He wants to know that there are happily ever afters out there, even if he doesn’t think he can be someone who gets one. As the conflict rises between Charlie and Dev’s relationship and what the show wants to happen, Dev slowly comes to open his eyes more to the truth, both about the show and what he deserves. So I think it works really nicely that Dev is not a jaded producer, but a true believer, even if the show ends up delivering love in a way none of them expected.

I really enjoyed Charlie and Dev as a couple. Charlie is all kinds of adorably awkward and Dev has a way of helping Charlie through his most stressful moments. And as the show goes on, Charlie gets more confident in himself and begins to actually believe he is worthy of loving just as he is, that people can care about him because of all he is, not in spite of it. While there are some “aw” moments at Charlie’s awkwardness, I think it is important to note that it is taken seriously as well. Charlie has some clear mental health issues, including OCD and anxiety, for which he is getting treatment. Dev also has depression, which he is not being treated, and which is a struggle for him off and on throughout the book. There is a clear storyline here about the way that so many people reject Charlie for his neurodivergence and mental health issues, including his family and his co-workers. Through his connection with Dev, Charlie begins to expect more and recognize what he deserves. In Dev’s case, he always tries to be “fun Dev,” to not let people see him when the depression rises, to insist he is fine. Through Charlie’s support, Dev realizes that it is ok to not always be ok.

The conflict here hits in a big way as contractual issues prevent the pair from being together. Charlie must get engaged to one of the women; there is no way he can skip out and run off with Dev. And of course, Dev can’t date a contestant. So even as Charlie begins to understand his own sexuality and reach for more with Dev, Dev is struggling between the two sides of himself. There is the part of him that desperately wants to be with Charlie, to have his own happily-ever-after. But there is also a lot of him that can’t believe this kind of love can ever be for him, and that causes him to sort of fixate on this idea that Charlie will eventually still end up with one of the women. We can see it is a defense mechanism of sorts. Dev needs to believe it can all work, and it is safer to invest his heart in this fairy tale than believe it can work out for him. At times, I found Dev’s single-minded focus on the show to be frustrating. There is a point when it is almost farcical to believe that Charlie would still fall in love with one of these women, and yet Dev is still on that train. But I also understood why he needed to believe in the show, even past the point of reason. Of course, in the end, it all works out for the guys. And yes, it is a stretch to believe how it all comes together, but I think for a book based on a show about fairy tale romances, it works.

One thing I appreciated about this story is the diverse cast of characters and the way it highlights the frequent misogyny and lack of diversity on the reality show. While the crew of Ever After is made up of a way array of races and sexual/gender identities, the cast is mostly white, straight, and conventionally attractive. Not to mention that the show features barely a whiff of anyone who is not straight. The Charm Offensive clearly points out many of these issues, right down to the head producer deciding they can’t have a bisexual woman win, since they have already had a bisexual winner on Ever After: Summer Quest, their summer spin-off (and again, with the on-the-nose, as The Bachelor’s summer spinoff recently had their own openly bisexual winner for the first time.) Not to mention that the show loves to pit the women against one another, having them fight over a man for the supposed fantasy of a traditional married life between two perfect looking people. Where I wished for a little more was with regard to Dev. It is not common for romance novels to feature Indian main character and I felt like this was kind of a missed opportunity. While Dev does note that it is rare to see people who look like him in TV and movies and that is why he has written a screenplay with an all Desi cast, that is really the only nod to the fact that Dev is not white. Now I think people are going to vary on how they feel about this. I will say that as someone of a minority religion that is rarely seen in romance novels aside from once a year in books where being Jewish and celebrating Chanukah is the whole storyline, I actually appreciate the idea that a book can feature a diverse cast without making their differences the focus. That said, I do wish that Dev’s cultural background was a bigger part of his character, particularly with regard to the fact that he works on a show focused mostly on helping white people find their true love, and what that means to him as a person of color.

Overall, I found this story wonderfully engaging. I was completely captivated by the romance between Dev and Charlie. They are so sweet and mushy and romantic together, and despite the fairly non-explicit sex scenes, they have a great sexiness between them. I loved the way both men brought out the best in each other and how they showed one another that they deserved to be loved just as they are. And I so enjoyed the big, cheesy, absurd reality TV component, even as I wanted to scream at them sometimes. The story is funny, charming, romantic, and sweet. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more by Cochrun in the future.

P.S. While Charlie never fully puts labels on his sexual identity, he does see himself as likely somewhere on the asexual spectrum (possibly demisexual). So for the purposes of tagging the post, I included both of those labels, even though it is not explicitly stated in the book.

This review is part of our 2021 Reading Challenge Month for New-to-Me Author Week! Leave a relevant comment below and you will be entered to win one of TEN great book bundles from almost 100 authors (you can see the details on the bundles, including the fabulous authors who donated books, in our Prize Preview post)! Commenters will also be entered to win our amazing grand prize sponsored by NineStar Press: a Kindle Paperwhite loaded with 50 NineStar Press books! And don’t forget if you read along with your own challenge book this week, you can earn ten contest entries for writing a mini-review! You can get more information on our Challenge Month here (including all the contest rules) and more details on New-to-Me Author Week here

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